Political Party/527

The Black Panther Party

Contents

The Black Panther Party was a communist Black militant organization founded in 1966 that allied with extremist New Left organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and communist regimes abroad. [1] A 1969 SDS resolution declared the Panthers the “vanguard force” in the “black liberation movement” and the “vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism.” [2] One historian described Panther members as “a cross-section of young African Americans, some who were law-abiding and sincerely interested in being of value to the Black community, others who had no qualms about breaking the law if it could be rationalized as a revolutionary activity, and still others who were just plain ruthless and criminal.” [3] At peak popularity, the Panthers claimed 5,000 members in approximately three dozen chapters across the nation, and a 1970 Louis Harris poll revealed that 25 percent of African Americans “felt the Black Panther Party represented their views.” [4]

The Black Panthers’ first popular program and successful recruiting tool was arming members with firearms, criminal law books, cameras and recording devices, and then sending them to follow police patrols. The Panther teams would observe the police/citizen interactions, ostensibly to remind individuals of their constitutional rights and prevent police abuses. The behavior created verbal confrontations with police, but no exchange of gunfire. Open carrying of firearms was legal in California at the time, but in response to the Panthers’ actions, the state of California enacted a law banning open carry. [5]

So-called “survival programs” were the Black Panthers’ other major community outreach program and successful recruiting tool. A free breakfast program for schoolchildren grew to serve 10,000 Oakland children daily and expanded to nearly three dozen other cities. [6]  Survival programs later included K-8 schools, free medical clinics and ambulance services, sickle-cell anemia testing, and other social services. [7] The Panthers used boycotts, firebombing and violence against local business owners who did not voluntarily contribute to the free breakfast program. [8]

The Panthers were frequently associated with violence and crime, particularly after late 1967. Co-founder Huey Newton stated the organization benefitted from thefts carried out by Oakland’s criminals: “In order to survive, they still had to sell their hot [stolen] goods. But at the same time they would pass some of their cash on to us.” [9] Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver deliberately recruited members with criminal inclinations, and said he wanted those who survive “off what they rip off, who stick guns in the faces of businessmen” and “don’t want a job.” [10] The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America reported that 28 Panthers may have died because in gun battles with law enforcement. [11] Another history states that 9 police officers were killed and 56 wounded in violent confrontations with the Panthers over a 2 ½ year period running through 1969. [12] A bookkeeper alleged to be knowledgeable of tax evasion and other misdeeds by the Panther leadership was brutally murdered. [13] Similarly, a team of Panthers attempted to murder a prosecution witness who identified Newton as the gunman who murdered a 17-year-old prostitute. [14]

Background

The Black Panther Party, originally the “Black Panther Party for Self-defense,” was founded on October 15, 1966, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, while both were students at Merritt College in Oakland, California. [15]

They drew their inspiration from the Freedom Organization of Lowndes County, Alabama, also created in 1966 by radical socialist American civil rights activist (and later black nationalist and separatist) Stokely Carmichael. After registering over 2,500 African American voters in Lowndes, Carmichael became frustrated because neither the Democrats nor Republicans engaged enough with his newly registered voters. As a response, he created a separate political party: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. According to the History Channel: “To satisfy a requirement that all political parties have an official logo, he chose a black panther.” [16]

Leaders’ Backgrounds

At the time of the Panthers’ founding, Newton and Seale were the only members. Eldridge Cleaver, then an influential writer for the left-wing Ramparts magazine, joined the Panthers in early 1967 and became one of three major early leaders of the organization. [17]

All three had violent backgrounds prior to their affiliation with the Panthers.

Huey Newton

At a party in Oakland in 1964, Newton began arguing with another man named Odell Lee. As the dispute escalated, according to the account in The Shadow of the Panther, a 1994 history of the Black Panthers written by the late journalist Hugh Pearson, Newton began stabbing the unarmed Lee “repeatedly with a steak knife.” A jury convicted Newton of felonious assault with a deadly weapon, which led to a six-month prison stay. [18]

Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver, according to The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, had “spent much of his adult life in prison on a number of criminal charges.” Black Against Empire, a a 2013 history of the Black Panthers written by historians Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., reported that Newton’s last offense before the founding of the Black Panthers was “assault with intent to kill,” leading to a prison sentence that would last nine years. While incarcerated, he became a prolific writer and was released with the assistance of a prominent left-wing lawyer named Beverly Axelrod. [19] [20]

After prison, Cleaver wrote his autobiography. Black Against Empire judged “parts” of the book as “deeply misogynist and sexist.” An example was a passage in which Cleaver confessed to becoming a rapist who “practiced” on Black women and then began targeting white women in what he wrote was “an insurrectionary act” of “defying and trampling upon the white man’s law” and “defiling his women.” [21]

Bobby Seale

Bobby Seale said that news of the assassination of Malcom X in February 1965 caused him to go on a “personal one-main riot” on the streets of Oakland, in which he threw bricks at automobiles driven by white people. Malcolm X had in fact been murdered by three assassins from the Nation of Islam, a radical Black separatist organization with which Malcolm had disputed and from which he broke away shortly before he was killed. [22]

Black Against Empire reported that while serving in the U.S. Air Force, Seale nearly killed a man by beating him with a pipe. The book asserts that the attack on the man when his “defenses were down” occurred because of a debt supposedly owed to Seale by three other servicemen, who allegedly threatened to beat Seale if he pursued repayment. Seale waited until “the main perpetrator” was alone before he “attacked.” [23]

Early Membership

Journalist Hugh Pearson, writing in The Shadow of the Panther, reported that the membership of the Panthers was “a cross-section of young African Americans, some who were law-abiding and sincerely interested in being of value to the Black community, others who had no qualms about breaking the law if it could be rationalized as a revolutionary activity, and still others who were just plain ruthless and criminal.” [24]

The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America quoted Eldridge Cleaver as recruiting members with a criminal inclination who looked for those who survive “off what they rip off, who stick guns in the faces of businessmen” and “don’t want a job.” [25] Hugh Pearson characterized this group as the “brothers off the block” who had “been in street corner fights most of their lives.” [26] Many of them, wrote Pearson, “would start drinking early in the morning” and be drunk by noon. [27]

An example cited in Black Against Empire was Bunchy Carter. Carter was recruited by Cleaver to be a leader in the Los Angeles Panthers chapter. Supposedly “considered by many to be the most dangerous man in Los Angeles,” Carter had been a prison friend of Cleaver and had founded the “most feared branch” of a 5,000-member-strong street gang. When building the Los Angeles Panther chapter, Black Against Empire reports that Carter “brought many former members” of his street gang in with him. [28]

The Encyclopedia also noted that Newton and Seale, “while seeing this largely criminal class as important to the Black Panthers,” tried to broaden the “power base” to include the “working poor.” The Encyclopedia also reported “the party drew a good deal of its support” from “students, educators and professionals.” [29]

Addressing the Panther members with educated backgrounds, The Shadow of the Panther claimed there was “a basic distrust most Panthers had for anyone who went to college.” [30]

Unequal Treatment

Hugh Pearson, author of The Shadow of the Panther, wrote that as the Panthers became financially successful, a two-class society developed between the “leadership cadre” and the “ordinary rank-and-file members.” While the leadership resided in “relatively spacious homes,” the “rank and file lived two and three to a room in bunk-like quarters, often with pallets on the floor.” According to Pearson, the leadership “rarely” had contact with the “members who were doing the actual work of selling the newspaper and . . . feeding breakfast to schoolchildren.” [31]

The recollections of former rank-and-file member Larry Powell are quoted extensively in The Shadow of the Panther. Powell worked in the Panther organization’s national office and reported that the office was collecting $50,000-$100,000 every month ($4.2 million to $8.4 million annually, in 2021 dollars), and that he personally delivered $1000 per month ($84,000 annually in 2021 dollars). Despite this, according to Powell, he had to plead with leadership for money to pay his rent and other bills and was often told there was no money to pay for it. The book reports that Powell and his wife Jean each accused Panther leader David Hilliard of embezzlement. [32]

According to The Shadow of the Panther, divorces between members were allowed only after permission was granted from the Black Panther Party Central Committee. Author Hugh Pearson wrote that this process was strongly biased against women. In one example, the wife of a member of the Central Committee requested permission to divorce, citing incidents of domestic violence that included beatings with bottles. Her request was denied, and when she left the room, according to Pearson, another Committee member told the husband “Evidently you didn’t hit that b—- hard enough, because if you had she wouldn’t even be in here.” [33]

Pearson wrote that the real fact of FBI informants within the Panthers was often used by leadership to silence critics. Those challenging unequal treatment or questionable behavior of the leadership were often denounced as spies and expelled or disciplined. [34]

Training and Indoctrination

According to The Shadow of the Panther, the Black Panthers began to acquire a “better-defined structure” for its members when new recruits began to arrive in large numbers after Spring 1968. A six-week training program, including political indoctrination and the reading of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book,” was required of all new recruits. They were also trained in firearms use and care. Following this period, recruits were evaluated and—if approved for membership—assigned a role within the Panther organization. [35]

Ideology

The official ideology of the Black Panthers was summarized in the Ten Point Program, the party’s official platform written in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers were adherents of revolutionary Marxism and anti-capitalism. The foundation of their philosophy was the belief that abusive policing and violent racism left African Americans in the position of a subjugated people with a right to self-determination somewhat analogous to that of a colony seeking independence from an imperial power. However, the Panthers did not advocate black separatism and welcomed alliances with and support from predominately white New Left organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society. [36] [37]

Rejection of Non-Violent Resistance

Those seeking to register Black voters in the Deep South during the 1960s frequently endured violence and sometimes murders inflicted by violent racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and public officials such as police officers, often acting with tacit sanction from segregationist governments. In The Shadow of the Panther, journalist Hugh Pearson wrote that this led many African Americans to reject the strategy of non-violent resistance that had been deployed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. [38]

One example was Robert Williams, a local NAACP chairman in Monroe, North Carolina, who in 1957 organized a private militia in the local African American community to resist threats of violence from the KKK. According to Hugh Pearson, Klansmen were regularly “nightriding” their vehicles through a Black neighborhood in Monroe, firing guns and blaring horns, and little to no effort was made by local police to prevent it. Pearson wrote that this behavior ended abruptly in October 1957 when Williams and his compatriots met the caravan of KKK riders with a “loud, disciplined and sustained barrage of return gunfire” with the shots fired into the air as warnings. [39]

Williams and his organization continued to intervene against instances of racial injustice over the next few years, but Williams eventually decided the courts and police could not be counted on to protect African Americans and dispense justice fairly. In May 1959 he declared “if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching then we must be ready to resort to that method.” In response, the national NAACP moved to suspend Williams. [40]

Williams wrote of this history in his 1962 book Negroes with Guns. According to Hugh Pearson, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale later drew on the theories in this book when they wrote the Ten Point Program. [41] Williams would subsequently become affiliated with the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), another organization that would strongly influence the ideology of Newton and Seale. [42]

Marxist Influences

Prior to creating the Black Panthers, Newton and Seale were members of an Oakland chapter of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a revolutionary Marxist and black nationalist organization. [43] In The Shadow of the Panther, Pearson wrote that in 1965 “three East Coast RAM members were arrested and charged with conspiring to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Washington Monument.” [44]

According to Black Against Empire, the association with RAM exposed Newton and Seale to “the key writings of revolutionary nationalism,” including those of Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong and the Cuban communist figure and executioner for Castro’s regime, Che Guevara. [45]

Black Against Empire states that RAM “argued that Black America was essentially a colony and framed the struggle against racism by blacks in the United States as part of the global anti-imperialist struggle against colonialism.” The book recounts that on July 4, 1965, RAM sent a greeting to the communist Vietnamese National Liberation Front “declaring the independence of Black America from the United States and asserting its solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against American imperialism.” A separate statement aimed at Black U.S. troops stationed in South Vietnam encouraged the Americans to come home and fight against the U.S. government instead. [46]

Black Against Empire authors Bloom and Martin wrote that RAM’s influence became “central to the politics of the Black Panther Party.” Even after leaving RAM, both Newton and Seale drew parallels between the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam and what they argued was a police occupation of Black neighborhoods in the United States. [47]

In 1967, Newton wrote that “black people” seeking the “desire to determine their own destiny” were being “constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied in the police department” and that there was a “great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by racist police.” [48]

Similarly, the same summer Seale wrote: “Black people will defend themselves at all costs. They will learn the correct tactics to use in dealing with the racist cops.  . . . The racist military police force occupies our community just like the foreign American troops in Vietnam.” [49]

Ten Point Program

In late 1966, prior to launching the Black Panther Party, Newton and Seale wrote the first draft of what has been referred to as both the “Ten Point Program” and “Ten Point Platform.” In between the title, “What We Want, What We Believe,” and a conclusion with text from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it contains the following points:[50] [51]

  1. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.”

No substantive additional elaboration was provided for this objective. [52]

 

  1. “We want full employment for our people.”

Elaborating on this point, the statement declared that the federal government should be required to provide either jobs or a “guaranteed income” to “every man.” Should this turn out to be incompatible with private enterprise, the document advocates that the “means of production should be taken away from the businessman and placed in the community.” [53]

 

  1. “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community.”

This was a call for slavery reparations, specifically the payment in equivalent currency for the “forty acres and two mules” that “were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people.” [54]

 

  1. “We want decent housing fit for shelter of human beings.”

As with point number two, this was a demand for the seizing of property and conversion of it into community housing cooperatives if “white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community.” [55]

 

  1. “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American Society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.”

No further elaboration was provided for this demand. [56]

 

  1. “We want all black men to be exempt from military service.”

The statement under this point asserted that “racist police” were oppressing African Americans in the same way that American troops were oppressing and killing “people of color” in other nations. [57]

 

  1. “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.”

This was a call for “all black people” to “arm themselves for self-defense” against “racist police oppression and brutality.” It specifically invokes the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment and its language regarding the right to bear arms. [58]

 

  1. “We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and cells.”

This was justified with the assertion that these inmates had not “received a fair and impartial trial.” [59]

 

  1. “We want all black people when brought to court to be tried by a jury of their peer group from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.”

The elaboration on this point cited the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and asserted that the fair trial guarantee could not be satisfied if “all-white juries” where permitted to judge black defendants who hail from different “economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial” backgrounds. [60]

 

  1. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.”

No additional clarification was provided regarding these demands. [61]

Funding Sources

Soon after the creation of the organization, the Black Panther Party leadership began benefitting from or participating in criminal behavior and mistreatment of its membership.

Newspaper Sales

Sales of The Black Panther newspaper were an important source of revenue for the Black Panthers and the main daily requirement of rank-and-file members. According to The Shadow of the Panther, each Panther was required to sell 100 copies per day and purchase them for 12 cents each (the cost of printing them). The copies were sold for 25 cents. The Panther salesperson kept 5 cents as personal profit, returned 7 cents to their local chapter, and reimbursed the 12 cents purchase price. (NOTE: the book does not resolve the discrepancy regarding the additional penny, which is a possible editing error). [62]

Journalist Hugh Pearson reported “disciplinary action” for rank-and-file members who violated Black Panther Party rules, such as failure to meet the daily quota for newspaper sales. Punishments included beatings, pistol whippings and incarceration in a Panther holding cell. Discipline was also inflicted for infractions such as drunkenness and careless behavior that drew the attention of law enforcement. [63]

According to The Shadow of the Panther, the newspaper had a weekly circulation of 140,000 copies in 1969. Accepting the statistics provided by the book, selling each copy at 25 cents meant the newspaper was grossing $35,000 per week, or $1.8 million annually (more than $13.4 million in 2021 dollars), with the Panther organization and affiliates netting a seven-cents-per-copy profit of more than $509,000 per year ($3.8 million in 2021 dollars). [64]

Each Panther salesperson selling 100 copies per day (26,000 per year) received a five-cents-per-sale $1,300 annually (or less than $10,000 in 2021 dollars). [65]

Marxists.org, an online repository of PDF copies of The Black Panther newspaper, estimated a weekly circulation of 300,000, sold at 25 cents per copy. [66] (This circulation figure would more than double the Panther organization’s annual profit estimate noted above, but would not increase the benefit for the individual salespersons.)

Racketeering and Robberies

The Black Panthers financed some of their operations through organized crime tactics. Hugh Pearson, writing in The Shadow of the Panther, reported that from the beginning of the Black Panthers, founder Huey Newton had worked out a “quid pro quo” with the “black criminal elements of Oakland.” Paraphrasing what might have been Newton’s description of the arrangement, Pearson wrote: “We’ll undermine the police, making it easier for you to engage in your criminal activities, in exchange for a fee.” [67] 

Newton rationalized these agreements as another act that “undermined the established order” and advanced the Panthers’ goal of inciting a socialist revolution. Describing the alliance with criminals that took place during the early days of the Panthers, Newton wrote: “In order to survive, they still had to sell their hot goods. But at the same time they would pass some of their cash on to us. That way, ripping off became more than just an individual thing.” [68] 

According to Pearson, the Panthers also directly engaged in robberies. He cites several “rank-and-file party members” who alleged that “certain party men were regularly organized into teams of two or three to commit robberies” or extort money from businesses and that the Black Panthers received 33 percent of revenue from the thefts. [69]

Children’s Breakfast Program

The Panthers also deployed coercion and threats of violence to support their community service outreach, the so-called “survival programs.”

According to The Shadow of the Panther, the Panthers “mixed the contradictions inherent in giving innocent youths free breakfasts with the implied violence out of the barrel of the gun.” While some businesses voluntarily supported the Panthers’ free breakfast programs, others were skeptical of the motives and politics of the Panthers. In some of the free breakfast programs, according to Pearson, children were taught to sing anti-police songs with lines such as “I want pork chop. Off the pig!” [70]

Pearson wrote that coercion was used by the Panthers on those who did not volunteer assistance: “If convenience store owners, supermarkets, dairy suppliers and restaurants couldn’t be embarrassed into donating to feed innocent children, the party decided, then they could be boycotted, firebombed, and beaten into doing so.” [71]

As one example, Pearson wrote of a boycott launched against Safeway when the supermarket chain initially declined to donate food. The Panther campaign included extensive community leafletting, such as flyers denouncing the “avaricious greedy businessman who owns Safeway stores.” Safeway eventually donated to the free breakfast program. [72]

In a more violent example, a North Oakland convenience store donated one dozen eggs, five dozen short of the six dozen the Panthers had requested. Pearson named two Panthers as responsible for the May 1969 punitive firebombing of the small business. [73]

History: Police Patrols Era (1966-1967)

Originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (until late 1967), the Black Panthers’ first major initiative was the open carrying of loaded weapons while shadowing police officers. Promoted as an effort to protect Black citizens from law enforcement abuse and harassment, the Panthers’ armed patrols produced verbal and sometimes legal confrontations with police. But—in contrast to many violent interactions with law enforcement that would later occur involving the Panthers—the authors of Black Against Empire wrote that none of the incidents during the police patrol era led to a “single shot” being fired. [74] [75]

Firearms law historian Adam Winkler explained to History.com how the Panthers behaved when a local African American was stopped by police: “The Panthers would stand to the sidelines with their guns, shouting out directions to the person. That they had the right to remain silent, that they were watching and that if anything bad happened that the Black Panthers would be there to protect them.” [76]

Creation of the Patrols

In addition to the 1962 book Negroes with Guns, Newton and Seale also modeled their police patrols on the Community Alert Patrol (CAP) program implemented in Los Angeles following the city’s 1965 riots. Funded by the U.S. government, the CAP program dispatched civilian observers to the scene of a police interaction with a Black citizen. The CAP participants monitored the behavior of police and reminded the person being detained of their constitutional rights. Newton and Seale modified this concept to include weapons after learning that California law permitted them to openly carry firearms. [77]

The armed shadowing of police began in early 1967 and continued until the end of July, when a California law was enacted that banned the open carrying of firearms. [78] In addition to weapons, according to Hugh Pearson, writing in The Shadow of the Panther, the Panthers also carried along “a law book, tape recorders, and cameras.” [79]

To fund the purchase of the weapons and ammunition, Newton, Seale, and the earliest Panther recruits sold copies of the quotations of Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong (colloquially known as Mao’s “Little Red Book”) for one dollar each to students at the University of California, Berkeley. Pearson wrote that the books sold “like hotcakes.” [80]

Early Confrontations and Publicity

Public confrontations between police and the Panthers shadowing them helped increase the profile of the Black Panther Party and grow its membership.

The authors of Black Against Empire wrote of one patrol in which Huey Newton and the Panthers followed behind a police car. A loud dispute ensued when an officer pulled the group over and tried to take the weapons away. The Panthers encouraged a crowd to gather and witness the incident. The authors write that Newton “slammed” the officer’s head “into the roof of the car” and kicked him in the stomach in response to the policeman’s attempt to grab Bobby Seale’s shotgun away. [81]

With what was described as a “sizeable crowd” watching, and insults flying back and forth, Newton reminded the police of his right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment, that the police had no right to take his property without due process, as protected by the 14th Amendment, and that the Panthers had a legal right to carry weapons openly under California law. A police lieutenant who arrived on the scene to supervise judged there was no grounds to arrest Newton and the Panthers. The police left, according to Black Against Empire, and several witnesses joined the Black Panther Party the next day. [82]

Hugh Pearson wrote of a similar incident in The Shadow of the Panther. Four police vehicles eventually came to the scene after one officer witnessed Newton and other Panthers getting into a car while bearing weapons. A crowd of witnesses gathered. A verbally belligerent Newton refused to surrender the rifle he was holding. “What are you doing with the guns,” asked an officer. “What are you doing with your gun?” replied Newton—his typical reply to that frequently asked question, according to Pearson. [83]

After he gave the officer his identification, as required by law, Newton was asked for a phone number. “Five,” he answered. “Five what?” replied the policeman. “The Fifth Amendment, have you heard of it?” replied Newton, who followed up with a reminder of his civil liberties. “The officers seethed in their humiliation,” wrote Pearson, while the neighborhood audience “cheered” Newton on, saying “Tell it, do it brother.” [84]

Eldridge Cleaver Joins Panthers

During early 1967, African-American radical-left organizations in the San Francisco area planned a memorial conference honoring Malcolm X, to be held on the two-year anniversary of his February 1965 assassination. Betty Shabazz, Malcom X’s widow, was an invited speaker and the conference sponsors were concerned for her safety. The Black Panther Party was asked to escort her from the airport to an interview with Eldridge Cleaver, then a writer for the radical left-wing Ramparts magazine. [85]

A verbal confrontation between Newton and airport security ensued when the Panthers walked into the San Francisco airport holding their weapons. Despite the protestations of the head of security, Newton and the Panthers asserted what they believed to be their right to be armed within the airport and proceeded to meet Shabazz at her gate and escort her to the interview. The head of security later told media Newton had been “quite hip on the law.” [86]

According to The Shadow of the Panther, the Shabazz and Black Panther entourage was met outside the Ramparts office by police, media (including television) and a large local group of spectators who had “jammed” the “entire block” to see what was going on. Another tense verbal standoff ensued between Newton and a police officer, with both parties armed, followed by the police officer relenting and the Panthers driving away. [87]

The Black Against Empire historians wrote that “word quickly spread about Huey Newton’s stand against the police” and about the “bold new Black Power organization, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” The authors noted that Eldridge Cleaver was particularly impressed: “Witnessing Newton stand his ground with the police, back them down, and call them cowards, Eldridge Cleaver was filled with jubilation.” [88]

The Panthers’ membership was still small, but they had won an important new convert. After witnessing the incident, Eldridge Cleaver decided Newton was the heir to the legacy of Malcolm X and joined the Black Panther Party. [89]

The Shadow of the Panther reported this development as important for both the reputation and finances of the Panthers: “And now Newton had Cleaver, the man of growing fame and eloquence who had a sounding board in the white leftist media and the backing of extreme left-wing white radicals.” [90]

Denzil Dowell Protests

The April 1967 police shooting of 22-year-old construction laborer Denzil Dowell was the catalyst for the first major burst in popularity for the Black Panther Party’s self-defense message. [91]

Dowell was shot to death by county sheriff deputies under suspicious circumstances in North Richmond, an African American community near Oakland, California. Dowell had multiple gunshot wounds in his back and to the back of his head. A coroner later ruled the fatal wounds to be six distinct bullet holes, contradicting the police claim that the injuries were from a single shotgun blast fired as Dowell was allegedly eluding an officer after an alleged robbery. Additionally, when Dowell’s brother arrived on the scene and found him lying in the street, no ambulance had yet been called. These and other controversies led the Dowell family and the community to suspect he had been deliberately set up to be killed. [92]

In the weeks afterward, Newton, Seale and the Black Panthers participated in several local protests and meetings supporting the Dowell family. The Panthers arrived openly carrying their weapons and preached that, to protect themselves from police, the Black community should take up arms as well. Some of the protests involved tense, but ultimately non-violent confrontations between the armed Panthers and the police, as crowds of more than 100 sometimes looked on. [93]

An ultimately pivotal community protest was planned by the Panthers for Saturday, April 29, 1967. Eldridge Cleaver promoted the event by printing and distributing 3,000 copies of a newsletter declaring itself to be “The Black Panther—Black Community News Service.” In addition to helping bring a crowd of approximately 400 to the event, the publication became the first edition of The Black Panther, the Black Panthers’ official newsletter that would be produced for another decade. Black Against Empire reports that The Black Panther would eventually reach an international circulation numbering in the “hundreds of thousands.” [94]

On April 29, with sheriff deputies on the scene and a police helicopter circling overhead, a Panther with a rifle on a nearby rooftop displayed the weapon to the cheering crowd of approximately 400 people. [95] According to the account in Black Against Empire, “something startling occurred” that day that had “never happened at any other Panther event.” Having witnessed the Panthers bearing weapons at previous rallies, some in the neighborhood arrived on April 29 with their own firearms as a “gesture of support and solidarity.” Others in attendance who had not initially brought their own weapons went home and got them. [96]

An FBI informant in the crowd reported back that he “had never seen Black men command the respect of the people the way that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale did that day.” More than 300 people filled out Black Panther Party for Self-Defense membership applications. [97]

Mulford Act

Journalist Hugh Pearson wrote that the “accumulation of incidents involving the armed Panthers grew to be too much for the white power structure of the Bay area.” His account in The Shadow of the Panther also noted that the “Panthers even had the audacity to walk around patrolling affluent white communities,” with the implied message being “let’s see how you like someone armed, in uniform, of a color different from you, walking around in your neighborhood.” [98]

In early April 1967, Don Mulford, a state lawmaker from one of those Oakland suburbs, introduced a proposal to ban the open carrying of firearms in public. [99] Introducing his legislation, the politician stated it was in response to the “increasing incidence of organized groups and individuals publicly arming themselves.” [100] On July 28 the “Mulford Act” had passed both chambers of the California Legislature and was signed into law by recently elected Gov. Ronald Reagan, who said he could think of “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” [101]

The result, according to the account in Black Against Empire, was that the “Black Panther Party had a burgeoning membership,” but “the tactic Newton and Seale used to build the organization had been outlawed.” [102]

On May 2, while the Mulford Act was still under consideration in the California Assembly, Bobby Seale, 30 openly armed African Americans (many of them Black Panthers), and an unarmed Eldridge Cleaver walked into the California state capitol building to protest the legislation. [103] They had alerted the media to their plans before arriving, creating what The Shadow of the Panther recounted as an “avalanche of photographers, cameramen and reporters” following them through the building. [104] On the way in, according to The Shadow of the Panther, the group walked past Gov. Reagan, who was speaking to a group of schoolchildren on the capitol lawn. [105]

Another acrimonious but mostly non-violent standoff ensued with the capitol police when the Panther entourage walked onto the floor of the state assembly chamber. This time the police forcibly removed the demonstrators’ weapons and escorted them from the room. The firearms were returned when the group left the building. [106]

Before leaving the capitol building, Bobby Seale read prepared remarks to the media. The so-called “executive mandate” denounced the “racist” California lawmakers for considering legislation “aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless.” He also extensively criticized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and condemned the “racist police,” the “lynching of thousands of black men and women,” pre-Civil War slavery, U.S. government “genocide practiced on the American Indians,” and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Referencing the internment camps used to hold Japanese Americans during World War II, Seale’s statement warned that the camps were being “renovated and expanded” to be used against “black people who are determined to gain their freedom by any means necessary.” [107]

The concluding paragraph began with a call to arms: “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes that the time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.” [108]

The authors of Black Against Empire wrote that the demonstration at the capitol received “extensive press coverage” that “boosted the party’s profile exponentially.” In addition to “at least twelve stories” in the local San Francisco Chronicle, they listed reports of the incident in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and “widespread television coverage.” [109]

A high school student from Berkeley, California, joined the Panthers because of the capitol protest. He told the New York Times: [110]

“As far as I’m concerned it’s beautiful that we finally got an organization that don’t walk around singing. I’m not for all this talking stuff. When things start happening I’ll be ready to die if that’s necessary and it’s important that we have somebody around to organize us.” [111]

According to Black Against Empire: “Soon students at San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley, flocked to the Panther rallies by the thousands.” [112]

History: Shootouts with Police and Leadership Shakeups (1967-1968)

Between late October 1967 and early April 1968, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver would become involved in separate fatal shootouts with police officers. As a public relations matter, these incidents would become major rallying points that benefitted the Panthers specifically and the radical left generally. The legal consequences of these incidents reduced the daily leadership impact of both men, at the time two of the three senior leaders of the Black Panthers, and temporarily elevated chief of staff David Hilliard to run the organization. [113]

The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America lists the Newton and Cleaver shootouts with Oakland police as the last two of six “highly publicized events” during 1967 and 1968 that were “central” to the growth in membership of the Black Panthers. [114]

The result, according to Black Against Empire was that the Panthers experienced rapid nationwide growth after April 1968, despite doing very little recruiting. The book reports that because of the Panthers’ national publicity and notoriety, “young activists from around the country contacted the Party asking how they could join.” In less than a year through the end of 1968, the Panthers grew from a “local organization based in Oakland” into a national presence with chapters in 20 American cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia. [115]

Shooting of Officer John Frey

On October 28, 1967, according to the account in The Shadow of the Panther, Huey Newton had come to the end of his parole period stemming from his conviction for a felonious assault that occurred in 1964. Newton and a friend, Gene McKinney were celebrating this development when they were pulled over by Oakland police officer John Frey. Newton claimed at a subsequent trial that he had attempted to make a case to Frey that the arrest was unlawful. In response, according to Newton, the officer told him to “shove it up your a–, n—-r,” physically assaulted Newton, and then pulled out a pistol and shot Newton in the stomach. [116]

The authors of two major histories of the Black Panthers, The Shadow of the Panther and Black Against Empire, both cite testimony from several unrelated witnesses, including a fellow police officer, that Frey was known for racist statements and behavior. [117] [118]

What is not disputed is that a physical altercation occurred between Frey and Newton, and Frey suffered a fatal gunshot wound. Another officer on the scene claimed it was he who shot Newton, but only after seeing that Frey had been shot, which the other officer presumed to have been done by Newton. The second officer was also shot, though not fatally. [119]

Newton and McKinney fled the scene and were later apprehended while seeking treatment for Newton’s injuries. Initially charged with first degree murder, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter almost a year later (in September 1968) and sentenced to prison for 2-15 years. [120]

Newton’s guilt was supported by several sources.

In The Shadow of the Panther, journalist Hugh Pearson cited the contemporaneous account of Dell Ross, who claimed that he drove Newton and McKinney partway to the hospital after the shooting, because the two men had approached Ross with a firearm and demanded a ride. Ross claimed that during the drive he heard Newton admit to shooting Frey. [121]

Another individual who heard Newton confess to killing Frey was Robert Trivors, a socio-biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Shadow quotes the account of the left-leaning Trivors, who became a friend of Newton’s during the late 1970s when Newton attended the school. Trivors, according to Pearson, said he heard Newton vaguely confess to generally committing homicides, but rarely provided incriminating specific details or names of victims because the “statute of limitations never runs out on murder.” [122]

The exception, claimed Trivors, was the shooting of Frey. Trivors, according to Pearson, said he heard Newton boast of being the “baddest [racial epithet deleted] that ever walked” because he had gotten away with killing a police officer. The Panthers also had “wanted” posters made up for Frey even before his death, according to Trivors. “It wasn’t coincidental that he [Frey] was dead at the end of the shootout, and the other officer was not,” said Trivors. [123]

Similarly, Pearson wrote that another Newton confession regarding Frey occurred near the end of Newton’s own life in 1989, after Newton found out that local gang members were looking for him. Willie Payne Jr., a friend of Newton’s who was with him hours before he was killed, said Newton admitted shooting Frey during a long discussion about Newton’s life. [124]

Newton’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment for the Frey shooting briefly left Eldridge Cleaver as the de facto leader of the Black Panthers. [125]

‘Free Huey’ Campaign

Events before and after the arrest and trial of Newton were used to by the Black Panthers and New Left activists who united to promote him as a martyr to their respective movements. According to Hugh Pearson, writing in The Shadow of the Panther, “Free Huey buttons became as popular among white radicals as antiwar buttons with peace signs” and the “enthusiasm to see Huey set free paralleled the Christian enthusiasm for the second coming.” [126]

Pearson also wrote of a “popular chant” used by Panthers who would gather at pro-Newton rallies: “The revolution has co-ome!!! Off the pig!!! Time to pick up the gu-un!!! Off the pig!!!” [127]

In the months immediately before the deadly altercation between Newton and Frey, the summer of 1967, large and deadly race riots occurred in Detroit and Newark. Then just two weeks prior to the shooting of Frey, the Oakland police department and the California Highway Patrol used mace and billy clubs to violently disperse an anti-draft demonstration in front of the Oakland induction center, in the process assaulting several print and broadcast journalists covering the event. [128]

Pearson wrote that because of these events the “stage was set for Huey Newton to make an even greater impact on history than he otherwise would have made.” [129]

The juxtaposition of recent Bay Area police violence against the anti-draft movement and Newton’s arrest created a strong feeling of solidarity among the white radical left. A writer for Ramparts magazine argued it was irrelevant whether Newton’s behavior the night of the shooting warranted prosecution because “justice was impossible.” [130]

The edition of The Black Panther newspaper immediately after Newton’s arrest carried the headline “Huey Must Be Set Free!” Inside, the editorial portrayed the shooting incident as a case of Newton putting his “life on the line so that 20,000,000 black people can find out just where they are at and so that we can find out just where America is at.” The authors of Black Against Empire summarized the strategy: “The Panthers argued that Newton was resisting the long-perpetuated oppression of blacks by police when he was imprisoned” and used his case to “mobilize support and put America on trial.” [131]

“The Panthers had claimed to be fighting an anticolonial war all along,” wrote the Black Against Empire authors. “Now antiwar activists increasingly saw their struggle too as a fight against imperialism, and the ‘Free Huey!’ campaign became a lightning rod for the anti-imperial Left.” [132]

The Panthers participated in a January 1968 anti-draft rally at the University of California, Berkeley. Bob Avakian, a Maoist leader within the radical New Left Students for a Democratic Society, told the crowd that Newton’s prosecution and the cause of draft-resisters were “interrelated.” A member of the Soviet-aligned Communist Party USA spoke before Avakian and made a similar claim. [133]

Eldridge Cleaver’s connections with the predominantly white New Left provided access to funding for a highly qualified defense attorney for Newton, financial support for the Black Panthers and other strategic alliances. [134]

In early 1968, the Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) formed a coalition agreement. PFP was a largely white radical-left organization that included SDS co-founder Tom Hayden and members of socialist and communist organizations. According to The Shadow of the Panther, PFP attracted “widespread support, particularly in California, and particularly in the Bay Area.” PFP agreed to adopt major elements of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program. The Black Panthers agreed to provide manpower to PFP’s embattled effort to gain ballot access in California. The ballot access drive succeeded with Panther help, Cleaver became PFP’s presidential candidate in 1968 and Huey Newton was a PFP congressional candidate. The Oakland chief of police attacked the Panther/PFP alliance as an effort to sow chaos with “unlawful demonstrations, parades and other activities.” [135]

Aborted Merger with SNCC

The growing popularity of the Black Panther Party and the galvanizing force of the “Free Huey” cause led to a brief merger attempt between the Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Begun in February 1968, this effort would briefly result in SNCC leaders Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and James Forman receiving membership and official leadership titles within the Black Panther Party. [136]

Hugh Pearson, author of The Shadow of the Panther, wrote that the SNCC desired the affiliation because of the growing popularity of the Panthers and SNCC’s “lack of real programmatic success” outside of the South. For their part, the Panthers, according to Pearson, had been “overwhelmed by the massive interest on the part of blacks” hoping to form other Black Panther chapters around the nation and thought the SNCC, as a “veteran organization” could provide “the structural apparatus that they needed.” [137]

Pearson also observed that leaders in both camps were “searching for something to sustain their various agendas, and Huey Newton was turned into fertilizer for them all.” The membership in the Black Panther Party was still “rather small” in early 1968, according to The Shadow of the Panther, and “didn’t start to snowball until a large rally held for Huey at the Oakland Auditorium on February 17, where Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and James Forman spoke.” [138]

At that event, H. Rap Brown told 6,000 attendees that “Huey Newton is our only living revolutionary in this country today.” Referencing Newton, Brown asked the audience: “How many white folks did you kill today?” Stokely Carmichael and James Forman also gave speeches at the same event, praising Newton and alluding to the need for violent retribution to avenge any harm that might come to him. [139]

The partnership quickly unraveled because of several conflicts. According to Pearson, the Panthers understood the alliance to be a “merger” while the SNCC understood it to be a looser “coalition.” [140] The authors of Black Against Empire wrote: “The SNCC leaders criticized the Panthers’ politics of aligning with white leftists, including their decisions to hire a white lawyer and raise money from whites to defend Huey.” [141] Also, according to Pearson, writing in The Shadow of the Panther, the “Black Panthers had a thirst for violent confrontation that SNCC did not share.” [142]

The Panther/SNCC alliance dissolved by at least late summer of 1968. In August 1968, Stokely Carmichael was also expelled from the SNCC and may have continued working with the Panthers for an indeterminate but short period afterward. This too ended by at least early July 1969, when Carmichael publicly announced his own break with the Panthers had occurred and criticized them for cooperating with white radicals and becoming a “tool of racist imperialists used against the black masses.” [143] [144]

Cleaver Police Shootout and Death of Bobby Hutton

On April 6, 1968, Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Hutton barricaded themselves in a house and engaged in a half-hour gun battle involving three different Bay Area police departments. Hutton was shot dead by the officers after the pair had surrendered, exited the home, and laid down on the ground. According to The Shadow of the Panther, this created “more sympathy for the Black Panthers” and “another martyr” to promote. [145]

There were conflicting accounts regarding the sequence of events after the surrender that led to Hutton being shot. According to The Shadow of the Panther, several white officers claimed Hutton got up and attempted to run away. A Black officer said Hutton had stumbled momentarily while being told to get up and was shot because the loss of balance caused him to lower his arms from above his head. [146]

What was not in question, according to The Shadow of the Panther, is that Cleaver planned for the Panthers to have a violent encounter with the police that night, two evenings after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book stated that Cleaver wanted to stage a “carefully targeted, symbolic show of violence to further stoke the image of Newton’s Black Panther army as the future revolutionary vanguard.” To that end, Cleaver rounded up four carloads of Panthers and announced they were going to ambush police and do “some shooting.” [147]

Gunfire later broke out when the Panthers found a group of officers. The Panthers responded by dropping to the ground or running away, with Hutton and Cleaver taking refuge in a home where the confrontation with the police ensued. In statements shortly after they were arrested, four different Panthers confirmed that Cleaver had planned the conflict. The Shadow of the Panther reported that this account was “corroborated several years later by Cleaver in an interview with left-leaning journalist Kate Coleman.” [148]

In early 1980, Cleaver pleaded guilty to assault charges related to the incident. In an interview with Coleman after accepting his conviction in the case, Coleman asked “Did you deliberately ambush the cops?” After providing a preamble to clarify that he no longer supported violent confrontations with police, Cleaver replied: “Yes.” [149]

However, in the days immediately after the shootout, Cleaver denied any role in instigating the violence, and portrayed the incident as beginning when a police patrol pulled alongside his vehicle and began shooting. “Of course, given the tenor of the times,” wrote journalist Hugh Pearson, “liberal and radical whites, and most blacks, believed Cleaver’s story.” [150]

David Hilliard was another future Panther leader implicated in the events leading to the death of Hutton. In July 1971, Hilliard began serving a prison term after being convicted for attempting to murder police officers. [151]

History: Violent Leaders of the New Left (1968-1969)

The authors of Black Against Empire wrote that the Panthers “remained relatively insignificant politically until April 1968.” But after the addition of Cleaver and Hutton alongside Huey Newton on the list of martyrs, according to the book, the “New Left increasingly looked to the Black Panthers for leadership.” The Panthers’ support (rhetorical and otherwise) from major radical-left organizations and individuals increased significantly. Controversy from the December 1969 police shooting of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton helped to broaden the Panthers’ support. [152]

Conflicts with Law Enforcement

According to The Shadow of the Panther, the Panther “shootouts with law enforcement” had become “common, defended and expected by most of the nation’s radicals.” And because few of these leftists (except for the Weathermen bombers) “had the daring to confront the police” themselves, the book (paraphrasing writer Julius Lester) asserted that “the Left appeared to view the Panthers as gladiators, cheering them on as they got themselves killed.” [153]

The Shadow of the Panther states there were hundreds of violent and other confrontations with law enforcement. It reported that “nine police officers were killed and fifty-six wounded in confrontations with the Panthers” from “the fall of 1967 through the end of 1969.” The casualty toll on the Panther side was 10 Panthers killed in these altercations, and an “unknown number” wounded. In 1969, at least 348 Panthers were arrested for a “variety of crimes.” [154]

Similarly, The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America states that 28 Panthers may have died because of gun battles with law enforcement. [155]

Promotion of Hutton as Martyr

Eldridge Cleaver was released on bail after his involvement in the shootout with police that resulted in the killing of fellow Panther Bobby Hutton. Until his bail was revoked in the fall of 1968, Cleaver went on a national speaking tour. The University of California, Berkeley, invited him to give a series of ten lectures. The Shadow of the Panther reported that universities across the nation were “inviting him to spew his shocking and entertaining invective.” The book provides quotes from a Cleaver speaking engagement to a group of corporate lawyers in which he asks them to help him acquire machine guns. One of the lawyers asked Cleaver what “whites” could do to help his cause. Cleaver replied: “Kill some white people!” [156]

Responding to the killing of Bobby Hutton, the radical-left Students for a Democratic Society sharply increased its support for the Panthers. One year later in 1969 the alliance had warmed to the point where an SDS resolution declared the Panthers the “vanguard force” in the “black liberation movement” and the “vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism.” SDS members were also encouraged to help raise money for the legal defense of Newton and Cleaver. [157]

Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcom X, responded to the killing of Hutton with a telegram saying he had “died a warrior for black liberation.” [158]

Similarly, a letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle declared there was “little fundamental difference between the assassin’s bullet which killed Dr. King on April 4, and the police barrage which killed Bobby James Hutton two days later.” This statement was co-signed by civil rights activist Floyd McKissick and a list of artists and writers that included Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, LeRoi Jones, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag. The group also stated the deaths of Hutton and King were both “attacks aimed at destroying the nation’s black leadership.” [159]

Hutton was 17 years old at the time of his death. At 16 he had been the very first recruit whom Newton and Seale had brought into the Panthers. An account of him in The Shadow of the Panther observed that he “was typical of the earliest party members” in that he was repeatedly getting kicked out of school and “often got in trouble with the police on petty charges.” [160]

Hugh Pearson observed: “As tragic as the shooting death of a not-very-articulate high-school dropout like Bobby Hutton was, that he could now be called a leader and referred to in the same breath as Martin Luther King by some of America’s most esteemed citizens was a testament to the . . . distance traveled since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.” [161]

Deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark

Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton and Illinois Panther activist Mark Clark were shot to death during a December 1969 police raid on Hampton’s residence. Numerous inconsistencies in the claims made by law enforcement regarding the raid and the shooting were apparent in the hours and days afterward and reported by media such as the New York Times. The Black Against Empire authors wrote that the controversy led to an “immediate outpouring of support” for the Black Panthers from the New Left and also more centrist-left voices such as local political figures and the ACLU of Illinois. [162]

In 1983 the families of Hampton and Clark and other Panthers present during the raid won a $1.85 million ($5 million in 2021 dollars) civil judgment against the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government. [163]

Immediately after the shooting, according to Black Against Empire, the “National Black Panther Party understood and sought to portray the killing of Hampton and Clark as political assassination and as part of a national government conspiracy to repress the Party.” The Chicago Panthers opened Hampton’s apartment for tours to make their case for police misconduct and “organize support through popular education.” The tours were available for two weeks after the incident (until shut down by local authorities) and drew “thousands of people—and many journalists.” This public relations offensive succeeded in bringing support from “mainstream political organizations” such as the United Auto Workers and NAACP “for an independent investigation of the killings.” [164]

Hampton’s parents, with the aide of the Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the civil rights organization founded by the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), held a memorial service that drew 5,000 attendees. In his eulogy for Hampton, Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC told the gathering: “If the United States is successful in crushing the Black Panthers, it won’t be too long before they will crush SCLC, the Urban League, and any other organization trying to make things better.” [165]

At  a public event in the summer of 1970, left-wing actress and activist Jane Fonda said the Black Panthers were “our revolutionary vanguard” and called on the audience to “support them with love, money, propaganda, and risk.” [166]

David Hilliard Assumes Leadership

In late September 1968, a court ordered Eldridge Cleaver to return to jail within 60 days. The judge determined Cleaver had violated his parole terms when he was arrested for participating in the police shootout that led to the death of Bobby Hutton. Rather than turn himself in, Cleaver instead fled into exile in Cuba, and then Algeria. [167]

By the end of 1968, according to The Shadow of the Panther, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was nominally the organization’s chairman, but “for all intents and purposes it was a glorified position” and Seale’s “principal responsibility was speechmaking.” The other two major Panther leaders were removed from direct decision making due to Cleaver fleeing the country and Newton’s imprisonment. As a result, the book reports that Panther chief of staff David Hilliard “took charge” and “began running the party.” Hilliard held this position until August 1970, when Newton was released from prison. [168]

History: Apex of Popularity (1969-1970)

David Hilliard’s leadership of the Black Panthers from late-1968 until August 1970 coincided with the organization’s apex of popularity. The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America reports “the exact size of the party is difficult to determine,” but “the best estimates are that at its peak in 1969, the Black Panthers had as many as 5,000 members and between thirty-four and forty local chapters.” The same source states that Panther rallies could draw crowds approaching 10,000 people, and that a 1970 poll conducted by Louis-Harris revealed 1 of every 4 African Americans “felt the Black Panther Party represented their views.” [169]

Survival Programs

Beginning in late 1968, according to Black Against Empire, David Hilliard and Bobby Seale added community service programs as a major focus of the Black Panther Party’s work. The first of what the Panthers deemed “survival programs” fed free breakfast to the children of Oakland. This was expanded to all Panther chapters nationwide and by the summer of 1969 was serving an estimated 10,000 children each day. At one time or another Black Panther chapters in 36 different cities ran a free breakfast outreach. [170]

Another survival program, so-called “liberation schools,” fulfilled point number 5 of the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Platform, which demanded “education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American Society.” Provided as an alternative to public education for students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade, the Panther-run schools began in the summer of 1969 and expanded to at least nine cities. According to Black Against Empire, the schools taught “black history” and “lessons in the Party’s ideology, goals, and activities. [171]

According to The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, the survival programs (all free of charge) also grew to include schools, medical clinics, clothing programs, sickle-cell testing and research, pest control, housing cooperatives, food programs, home maintenance, free travel for families to visit loved ones in prison, ambulance service, elderly transportation, and child development centers. [172] Bobby Seale later claimed the Panthers tested 1.5 million African Americans for sickle-cell anemia, which he claimed was “more than was tested by all the government agencies and hospitals put together.” [173]

In some of the free breakfast programs, according to The Shadow of the Panther author Hugh Pearson, children were taught to sing anti-police songs with lines such as “I want pork chop. Off the pig!” [174]

More generally, Bobby Seale stated the survival programs had an explicit political aim as “revolutionary, community, socialist programs.” The Black Against Empire authors wrote that the programs were part of the Panthers’ “broader insurgency” to reveal the “insufficiency of the capitalist welfare state” and ultimately to replace American capitalism with socialism. [175]

The FBI shared these interpretations of the survival programs and specifically targeted them with its COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program). In early 1969 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was informed that the agent leading the Bureau’s San Francisco office was reluctant to (in Hoover’s words) “attack programs of community interest.” Hoover dressed down the agent in a May 1969 memorandum: [176]

“You have obviously missed the point. . . . You must recognize that one of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the [Black Panthers] is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from [. . .] whites and moderate blacks.” [177]

Alex Rackley Murder

In August 1969, Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins (then the leader of the Panther chapter in New Haven, Connecticut), and other Panthers were arrested for their involvement in the killing of Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old Panther. Charges against many of the other Panthers were later dropped. In May 1971, both Seale and Huggins were not convicted by hung juries, charges against them were dismissed, and no subsequent charges were filed. [178]

George Sams, a Panther with the New York City chapter, suspected the 19-year-old Rackley was a police informant. According to Black Against Empire, Sams established a “kangaroo court” to determine whether Rackley was a spy. Sams, another associate named Warren Kimbro, and one other Panther male beat the teenager with a club, poured boiling water on him, and choked him with a coat hanger. [179]

Days later, Sams announced he would take Rackley to a bus station and release him. Instead, Sams and the other pair of torturers took Rackley to a swamp, where he was killed. Black Against Empire reports that Sams handed a .45 caliber pistol to Kimbro and told him to shoot Rackley on “orders from national.” [180]

Sams and Kimbro each pleaded guilty to their direct participation in the torture and murder of Rackley. Both served four-year prison sentences after becoming prosecution witnesses who claimed that Seale had ordered the murder of Rackley. According to Black Against Empire, “there was no credible evidence of Bobby Seale’s involvement” in the killing. [181]

The Black Against Empire authors also wrote that Ericka Huggins was present during the torture of Rackley (though not the murder) and recorded the abuse on an audiocassette that captured “Rackley desperately screeching for mercy.” In a May 1977 profile of the incident, the Washington Post reported that Huggins had “admitted boiling the water used to torture [Rackley], kicking him and calling him obscene names as he sat tied to a chair.” The Post account also called Warren Kimbro the “Black Panther executioner” who killed Rackley “with a gunshot wound to the back of the neck.” [182] [183]

In June 1972, while Kimbro was still in a Connecticut prison and less than three years after his murder of Rackley, Harvard University’s education school admitted him to study for a master’s degree. [184] In September 1975, Kimbro was hired as the assistant dean for student affairs at Eastern Connecticut State College. [185]

As of 2012, Ericka Huggins was a professor of women’s studies at California State University—East Bay, and a professor of sociology at both Berkeley City College and Laney College. [186] In May 2021, the Washington Free Beacon reported that U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced Huggins at a public forum and “hailed Huggins as an example of the strength of leadership of women in the Black Panther Party.” [187] The event was also hosted by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). [188]

History: Infighting and Violence (1970-1971)

Huey Newton’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter in the killing officer John Frey was set aside in 1970 by an appellate court that ruled Newton’s trial court judge had improperly instructed jurors. On August 5, 1970, Newton was released from prison, pending a new trial. Two subsequent trials resulted in hung juries, and in December 1971 prosecutors decided against a fourth trial and dropped the charges against Newton. [189] [190]

Newton resumed daily leadership of the Panthers when he was released in August 1970 and engaged in public and sometimes violent disputes with many of the most prominent Panther leaders and affiliates. These events began to erode the membership and influence of the Black Panthers.

Newton-Cleaver Rivalry

Shortly after Newton returned from prison an ultimately irreparable fracture of the Black Panthers occurred between those loyal to Eldridge Cleaver and those loyal to Newton and David Hilliard. Many Panthers became dissatisfied with the leadership of Hilliard while Newton was incarcerated and believed Newton would address their concerns when he resumed control. However, according to The Shadow of the Panther, “Newton was unreceptive” and “stuck by David Hilliard.” The book also states that Newton had become “jealous” and “intimidated” by other Panthers with “leadership skills.” Eldridge Cleaver, though still in exile in Algeria to evade prosecution, was leading an “international wing” of the Black Panthers and was approached by the anti-Hilliard faction to intervene on their behalf. [191]

The Shadow of the Panther cites the names of several Black Panthers who accused Hilliard and his allies of embezzlement and “high living off the backs of the rank-and-file party members.” [192]

One critic, former Panther Landon Williams, is quoted on this point: “People were criticizing David for all the excesses. He kicked those people criticizing him out of the party. If you look through the party newspaper you’ll see how so-and-so was declared an enemy of the people for threatening David’s life. Most of the time that was bull.” [193]

Ideology was a second major factor animating the anti-Hilliard faction. The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America described the division as between Newton and Hilliard, who “increasingly felt that the party should put greater emphasis on its domestic community service programs” that had thrived under Hilliard, and Cleaver, “who believed that the party should advocate violent revolution and movements.” [194]

Purge of the “New York 21”

The ideological divide between the Cleaver and Newton factions was demonstrated by the February 1971 expulsion of the so-called “Panther 21” or “New York 21.”

Sympathetic to Cleaver’s advocacy of revolutionary violence, the group was a collection of New York Black Panthers arrested in April 1969 and charged with a plot to bomb large retail shops, police stations and public transit. The New York 21 were eventually cleared of the charges. But before this occurred they published a January 1971 public letter in a New York tabloid, addressed to and supporting the Weather Underground bombers and criticizing the Newton faction of the Black Panthers. [195] [196]

Also known as Weatherman or the Weathermen, the Weather Underground was a radical-left violent extremist group that was active from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. The January 1971 open letter from the New York 21 Panthers praised the (mostly white) Weathermen as “the true revolutionary vanguard” seeking to destroy the “Amerikkkan machine and its economy,” and called for “BLOODSHED,” “ARMED STRUGGLE,” and “VIOLENCE. [Emphasis in original.]” [197]

The letter accused the Newton faction of impeding the progress of this armed struggle with “non-movement . . . isolation and retrogression.” The Panther 21 wrote that Newton’s allies—rather than operating “in a revolutionary manner against the pigs”— had become a group obsessed with running a newspaper and holding events where “rhetoricians rhetoric, functionaries function, printing presses print, delegates travel, international friendships grow,” and “‘leaders’ become overwhelmed with ‘work.’” [198]

The Newton faction announced in a February 13 statement in their Black Panther newspaper, that the New York 21 had been expelled from the Black Panther Party as “Enemies of the People” because of the “Open Letter to the Weathermen.” [199]

Eight days later, on February 21, the Weather Underground conducted four separate attacks in New York, including at the home of the judge overseeing a criminal trial involving the New York 21. While the judge and his family were asleep inside the home, three firebombs were simultaneously detonated at the front door, another on a window ledge, and the third underneath the gas tank of the family car parked next to the home. An alert neighbor saw the explosions, called the police, and then used snow to extinguish the fire underneath the car before the gas tank exploded. Extensive damage was done to the home but did not harm the occupants. Historian Arthur Eckstein wrote that the firebomb underneath the car may have been lethal if it had detonated the gas tank. [200]

Cleaver and Newton Expel Each Other

On February 26, two weeks after the statement expelling the New York 21, Newton and Cleaver appeared together on a San Francisco morning television show. The joint appearance had originally been planned to promote a forthcoming rally to support Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins (who were still being prosecuted for the murder of Alex Rackley). It became instead a forum for the two men to publicly demonstrate their dispute. [201]

Cleaver, still in exile to avoid prosecution for the shootout that led to the death of Bobby Hutton, had to call in to the show from Algeria. As soon as he joined the discussion, he demanded that Newton reinstate the New York 21 and instead purge Davi Hilliard and his associates. [202]

Newton refused to respond while on the air. Afterward, he and Cleaver privately continued the phone conversation, which escalated to the point where the two men mutually expelled each other and their allies from the Black Panthers. Cleaver later announced that the headquarters of the Panthers would no longer be based with Newton and his Oakland, California, faction, and instead would be moved to New York City and Cleaver’s “international” outreach in Algeria. [203]

According to The Shadow of the Panther, Cleaver won the allegiance of the New York City Panthers, the San Francisco Panthers, “a large share of those in Los Angeles,” and “most of the East Coast Panther chapters.” Newton retained the loyalty of the original, Oakland-based Black Panthers. [204]

Murderous Retaliation

Days after the acrimonious television appearance between Cleaver and Newton, Cleaver loyalist Robert Webb continued the heated rhetoric. On an early March 1971 New York radio broadcast, Webb accused David Hilliard of wasting Black Panther money on costly trinkets such as a “huge diamond ring.” The following week, Webb discovered a group of pro-Newton Panthers selling the Party’s newspaper on the streets of New York. An argument ensued and ended with one of the Newton loyalists fatally shooting Webb in the head. [205]

Six weeks later, the murdered body of a Newton ally who was visiting New York City was found. The victim had been tied up, shot six times, and then incinerated within a building that was set on fire. The Shadow of the Panther states this killing was “blamed on Cleaver loyalists as retaliation for the murder of Webb.” [206]

Days afterward in California, the charred body of a Cleaver-aligned Panther was discovered with a single gunshot wound to the head. [207]

The retaliatory murders continued into at least November 1971, according to The Shadow of the Panther, when Sandra Pratt, the pregnant wife of Cleaver-ally Geronimo Pratt, was “tortured, shot, and killed by Newton-faction Panthers.” [208]

Panther co-founder Bobby Seale estimated that 30 to 40 percent of Black Panther Party members departed quickly after the 1971 murders. A March 1971 New York Times report stated: “A check of the Party’s chapters across the country suggests that the operation is now only a shell of what it was a year ago.” [209]

Many idealistic party members “not expelled by Newton,” according to The Shadow of the Panther, “left on their own, channeling their idealism into local black community organizations, or their revolutionary zeal into the offshoot Black Liberation Army (BLA), begun by one group of Cleaver loyalists.” [210]

History: Era of Decline (1971-1977)

In their analysis of the 1971 divisions and fratricidal violence, left-leaning journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery wrote that Huey Newton ultimately “prevailed” and enhanced his “one man rule” of what remained of the Black Panthers. [211]

From 1972 onward, according to The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America: [212]

“The party continued its downward spiral, with Newton becoming increasingly authoritarian and erratic in his approach. He took personal control of all the party’s financial resources and alone decided on how the money would be spent. Under his control, the party became involved in criminal activities in Oakland.” [213]

Murder and other criminal allegations against Newton led him to flee the country for Cuba in 1974. His return, according to the Encyclopedia, touched off the final era of destruction: [214]

“In 1977, Newton returned to the United States . . . Under his leadership, the party quickly declined again into violence, criminal activities, and financial mismanagement. The last issue of The Black Panther was published in 1980. In 1982, with the closing of the Oakland Community School due to lack of funds, the Black Panther party came to an official end.” [215]

Newton Consolidation

In the Aftermath of the 1971 split between the Newton and Cleaver factions of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton consolidated power within the original chapter in his home of Oakland, California. He redirected all funding to Oakland and closed most of the dozens of chapters in other cities across the nation. The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America reported that from this point forward the Panthers became and remained “an essentially local Oakland organization.” [216]

This further consolidation was applied to what had already been a centrally controlled movement. Describing the Black Panthers during the high point of membership and chapter growth through 1970, The Encyclopedia reported: “While many ideas and suggestions would flow up from the rank and file, through branch and chapter leaders, to the national organization, ultimate authority clearly resided at the national level. Directives on strategy and tactics were issued in the form of mandates from the top and, once issued, were expected to be followed with discipline.” [217]

Within Oakland and the Bay Area, Newton prioritized funding for the so-called “survival programs,” the Panthers’ community service outreaches such as the Panther-run elementary school, sickle-cell anemia testing, food banks, charitable health clinics, and an ambulance service. In The Shadow of the Panther, journalist Hugh Pearson wrote that this strategy was an “effort to turn the city into a demonstration project of what could be accomplished when the entire black community cooperated with each other.” [218] [219]

Pearson also reported that Newton’s redirection of all funding to Oakland “proved to be a worse form of management than what chapters across the country had complained about under Hilliard.” According to The Shadow of the Panther, mid-level Panther leaders who once had discretion regarding how to best deploy resources were stripped of that authority. According to one Panther quoted in the book: “When centralization was put into effect, no one could touch the cash money. . . Huey squashed all that.” [220]

Former Panthers quoted by Pearson said this led directly to troubles with the sale of The Black Panther, the newspaper that was used as both a media outlet and important fundraising source. “The beatings started, terrible beatings,” said one former Panther woman, referencing the corporal punishment meted out on those who failed to meet sales quotas. She said this led some to sell papers aggressively, but then keep the money, “go on over to the airport” and flee the city and the Panthers. “People were deserting right and left,” she said. [221]

The result, according to Pearson, was that the “faith of remaining rank-and-file party members in what they were doing was tested more than ever before.” [222]

Political Campaigns

After 1971, Newton tried to turn the Panthers into a serious political party that could win local elections. According to The Shadow of the Panther, this was a complementary strategy to Newton’s desire to turn Oakland into a demonstration project for African-American leadership. As one example of the thinking, the book reported that Newton noticed the Port of Oakland was a major hub of international trade and theorized that “if blacks could seize political power in the city, they then could control the port and engage in international trade.” [223]

The Panthers ran a voter registration drive in advance of the 1973 mayoral election in Oakland. Resources and volunteer manpower were dedicated to door-to-door canvassing and placing registration tables outside grocery stores and Panther-run community service “survival” programs. This succeeded in signing up an estimated 30,000 new voters, according to The Shadow of the Panther. [224]

During the election, the Panthers ran a fleet of vehicles to transport voters to the polls. [225]

Despite Bobby Seale’s skepticism of using Panther resources to win elections, the Panther co-founder was run as their candidate in the 1973 Oakland mayoral race. Seale received 43,719 votes in the two-candidate run-off election, losing to the incumbent mayor by 28 percentage points. [226]

Newton’s Erratic Behavior

According to multiple sources, Newton’s leadership of the Black Panthers after his return in August 1970 was marked by erratic behavior, drug use, and paranoia.

Journalist Hugh Pearson wrote that Newton began engaging in heavy substance abuse and that this pattern did not let up for the remainder of his life.  These vices included “drinking tumblers of cognac, taking assorted pills, and, most of all, snorting cocaine.” The Shadow of the Panther reported that “large amounts of cocaine” were brought to Newton by the “Hollywood beautiful people eager to get next to him.” [227]

Citing confidants “closest to him,” the Black Against Empire authors reported that Newton from 1971-forward was “severely addicted to cocaine,” and “governed by despair, untreated bipolar disorder, and clinical depression.” Surveying many sources and allegations made against him during this era, the book summarized: “According to these stories, for much of the 1970s, Newton ruled the Party through force and fear and began behaving like a strung-out gangster.” [228]

Expulsion of David Hilliard

Hugh Pearson quoted a source who said Newton permitted no challenges nor criticism: “Every time someone spoke up, they got identified in the party paper as an enemy of the people and were expelled.” [229] Journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery wrote that Newton became “plagued by insecurities, sometimes doubting his oldest and closest lieutenants.” [230]

In early 1974, Newton expelled David Hilliard, his friend since the pair were children and one of Newton’s most loyal supporters. Newton believed Hilliard was plotting a coup against him, despite Hilliard being in prison at the time and having been incarcerated since 1971. “So great was Newton’s displeasure,” wrote Coleman and Avery, “that he went into the Panther school and personally pulled out all four of Hilliard’s children.” [231]

Expulsion of Bobby Seale

In the summer of 1974, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale’s affiliation with the organization ended under circumstances that are in dispute.

The Shadow of the Panther repeated a story sourced to then-Newton associate David Horowitz. According to this account, Newton and Seale engaged in a severe argument that ended when “Newton dramatically beat Seale with a bullwhip and sodomized him.” [232]

Similarly, writing in 1978, left-leaning journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery wrote that by “several accounts” Seale was held at gunpoint while he was beaten by Newton and “had to be treated by a doctor for his injuries.” Seale denied this account when he spoke to the journalists, but they report their sources were those “in a position to know—including someone who treated his injuries.” [233]

In her 1992 autobiography, former senior Panther leader Elaine Brown told a third version that she alleged was a first-hand account. She wrote that Seale voluntarily accepted being beaten with a bullwhip, as punishment for arguing with Newton, and that during the attack Newton expelled Seale from the Panthers. Brown said she witnessed another man administering the lashings under Newton’s direction. She did not mention witnessing a sexual assault or Newton personally striking Seale. [234]

According to a university media source, Seale reportedly “expressed his contempt” for Brown’s account during a 1996 public appearance at the University of Michigan. [235]

Multiple sources report that Seale disappeared from public view for at least a year after the altercation with Newton. [236] [237] [238]

Elaine Brown Leadership

In October 1971, Elaine Brown, a leader from the Los Angeles Panther chapter, replaced David Hilliard as the de-facto second-in-command to Huey Newton. Hilliard went to prison in July 1971, following a criminal conviction for his participation in the April 1968 shootout between the Panthers and the police. (This was the same incident that led to the death of Panther Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver’s flight into exile in Algeria). Brown, according to Black Against Empire, had by this point become Newton’s romantic partner and a “close collaborator.” [239]

Brown was nominally the top leader of the Panthers from late 1974 until 1977—the period in which Huey Newton fled to Cuba to avoid prosecution. Journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery described the relationship during this period: “Even from Havana he [Newton] remained Number One, conferring regularly with Brown by telephone—monitored by the CIA—and more private messages delivered by trusted couriers.” [240]

Shortly after Newton’s return from Cuba in 1977, Brown resigned from the Black Panthers. In her personal memoir she stated her break with Newton occurred after (and in part because of) a botched October 1977 attempt to murder Crystal Gray, a prosecution witness in a pending homicide allegation against Newton. Newton’s management decisions, tolerance of sexist practices within the party, and use of Panther funds to pay his legal bills were other aggravating factors cited by Brown for her departure. The Shadow of the Panther cites the accounts of other Panther figures from the era who claim Brown was the victim of a severe beating from Newton just prior to her announced resignation. The book quotes Landon Williams, who left the Panthers during the same period, who claimed Newton “damn near beat her to death” and fractured her jaw. [241]

Accomplishments

Coleman and Avery wrote that “three years of impressive and previously unimaginable Panther inroads into the Oakland political establishment” occurred during Brown’s nearly three-year reign during Newton’s flight to Cuba. [242]

Writing their account in 1978, after Brown’s resignation, the authors credited her with bringing in $300,000 ($1.2 million in 2021 dollars) for Panther schools and service organizations from California state government, local Bay Area governments, and private donors. They also wrote that the first African American mayor of Oakland and first African American supervisor of Alameda County were both elected with “crucial campaign support” provided by the Brown-led Panthers. [243]

In 1976 Brown was a presidential delegate to the Democratic National Convention for then-California Gov. Jerry Brown. Afterward, Coleman and Avery wrote that she spoke for coalition of “Republican” businessmen” and other Oakland activists who persuaded Gov. Brown to approve funding for a freeway expansion. [244]

Reputation

Journalists Coleman and Avery described Brown as “glamorous” and “smart” with a “flair for public relations,” and wrote that she “buzzed about Oakland in a red Mercedes and always dressed with the panache of a young woman executive.” However, they also reported that “despite the high regard in which she was held by officials in Oakland and Sacramento, there were others who quietly referred to Elaine Brown as the “Dragon Lady” who had a “pronounced vengeful streak.” [245]

Similarly, while crediting Brown for her leadership accomplishments, The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America reported that she maintained “some of Newton’s more authoritarian tactics.” [246]

Kate Coleman wrote in another report that Brown “was anything but a moderating influence” and cited an incident told by Brown in her autobiography as an example. Brown presided over the disciplining of a Panther who was kept in place by a shotgun pointed at him while he was brutally kicked and beaten by four men on her security detail. [247]

Newton’s group of criminally inclined bodyguards continued to provide protection for Brown while Newton was in exile, according to Coleman and Avery. However, they wrote that “unlike Newton” Brown “did not tour the streets and bars with the Squad on shakedown runs.” The journalists noted that the Squad’s “criminal activities” continued without her physical presence and there were “no reports that she moved against it.” [248]

Murder of Beverly Van Patter

Panther bookkeeper Beverly Van Patter disappeared just before Christmas 1974, while Huey Newton was in exile in Cuba. After her body was discovered in the San Francisco Bay weeks later, a medical examiner ruled she had been murdered by a severe blow to the head. The murder was never solved. [249]

David Horowitz, former editor of Ramparts (a now-defunct left-wing magazine) and an erstwhile ally of Newton, was a friend of Van Patter’s and helped her get the bookkeeping job with the Panthers. Horowitz claimed he was personally told by Newton that Elaine Brown had ordered the murder of Van Patter. This admission allegedly took place after Newton’s return from Cuba and after Brown had resigned from the Panthers. [250]

Horowitz was made aware of the Van Patter disappearance as it developed. Van Patter’s daughter called Horowitz soon after her mother disappeared, but before the body was found. Alarmed, Horowitz promised to call Elaine Brown on behalf of the daughter and find out what he could. Unknown to Brown, but later revealed to journalist Kate Coleman, Horowitz recorded these calls. [251]

Coleman wrote that the tapes reveal Elaine Brown’s “vicious and vulgar” attitude toward Van Patter and a “callous disregard” for her disappearance. Brown is quoted telling Horowitz that Van Patter was “asking too many questions,” “wanted to know too much,” and that “this woman has all our little information and [expletive deleted].” More generally, Brown said Van Patter was “stupid” and an “idiot.” Of the worried family and friends looking for Van Patter, Brown told Horowitz “She [Van Patter] made me so mad it’s hard for me to be concerned about her daughter.” [252]

In a 1998 reexamination of the case, Coleman recounted several contradictions in the story Brown told about the status of Van Patter’s employment and the incidents prior to the disappearance. [253]

Coleman summarized the conversations secretly captured by Horowitz: “Clearly, Brown was worried that Betty would go public.” Horowitz has stated that he interpreted Newton’s allegation about Brown instigating the murder as a lie intended to conceal that Newton himself had ordered the killing, with Brown carrying out Newton’s instructions. [254]

Similarly, in a September 1989 essay written shortly after Huey Newton’s murder, journalist Ken Kelly recounted an incident at a party in which he was told by a “coked out of his skull” Newton that while in Cuba he had ordered the murder of Van Patter. A former professional associate of Newton’s, Kelly provided public relations assistance after the Black Panther leader returned from Cuba. [255]

Kelly also counted Van Patter as a friend. He said in his 1989 essay that Newton told him of a motive for the murder: “While he was in Cuba, he told me, he’d ordered the murder of a good friend of mine who had been hired to do the bookkeeping for the Panthers. She’d refused orders to cook the books, to make them look legit, and had threatened to call the cops.” [256]

Criminal Behavior

In 1972, according to The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, the Panthers created a “security cadre” that “were increasingly used to force Oakland’s criminal groups to pay the party for the right to continue their activities.” [257] Black Against Empire reported that in this period the “Black Panther Party became increasingly cultish, resembling a social service organization … with a mafioso bent.” [258] Black Against Empire is generally considered a sympathetic portrayal of the Black Panthers’ history—a left-leaning reviewer writing in The Nation criticized Black Against Empire for “barely” addressing the Panthers’ “swift descent into thuggery.” [259]

Left-leaning journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery wrote that the security cadre — also known as “the Squad”— often operated “like underworld hit men.” Writing their profile in 1978, they cited sources who accused the Panthers (via Newton and the Squad) of “a series of violent crimes—including arson, extortions, beatings, even murder.” [260]

The Lamp Post Bar

The Shadow of the Panther account of this period states that while “one side of Newton mapped out Panther efforts to gain legitimacy aboveground, the other side mapped out a strategy for gaining control of the vices of Oakland.” The book states that the “centerpiece for control of the vices” became Oakland’s Panther-owned Lamp Post bar. [261]

Mary Kennedy, a former Panther member and source quoted in The Shadow of the Panther, recounted that the Panthers ran illegal drug sales and prostitution from the Lamp Post. According to Kennedy, it was a “call girl ring” featuring the “best looking women” in the Panther orbit. “If you wanted a good-looking woman and you had the money,” said Kennedy, “you’d just pay Huey’s ring and you’d get that woman.” [262]

A source cited by left-leaning journalist Kate Coleman claimed that women who were “rank-and-file” Panther members were put to work as prostitutes at the Lamp Post “as punishment for infractions of Party discipline.” Another source said $25,000 per month from various illegal enterprises and shakedowns was laundered through the bar ($1.3 million per year in 2021 dollars). [263]

The Squad

Coleman and Avery cited sources who said the Squad was no more than a dozen men: “up to two ‘fire teams,’ usually with five or six men each,” with each recruit personally selected by Newton. [264]

The reporters quote a “source familiar with the initiation rites” of Squad members who described a typical recruit as a loyal Panther who “lived in dire poverty” and “did the “day-to-day stuff that keeps the Party going—you know, standing on the corner with the sickle cell anemia cans or hawking the paper.” Such a young man would receive a “summons” from Newton to join him in his penthouse apartment to “snort cocaine,” enjoy “good liquor” and “hang out with Huey.” [265]

According to “police and other sources” who spoke to Coleman and Avery, Newton began taking the Squad on regular sojourns into “Oakland’s tough night life, into bars and after-hours joints,” where they would extort money from the clubs, pimps, and narcotics dealers. The reporters cite general examples of “some clubs” being forced to pay as much as $500 per week in “protection money” to the Squad (more than $108,000 annually in 2021 dollars). [266]

A concert promoter who spoke to Coleman and Avery had refused to pay protection money to the Squad in advance of rock concerts he was going to host in August and December of 1973. The venue he was leasing for the shows was hit with a pair of arson attacks days before each event was to take place. The fires inflicted $89,000 in combined damage to the concert theater (at least $500,000 in 2021 dollars). The music promoter told the journalists he had been approached by intermediaries who demanded the Panthers be cut in on the proceeds of the shows or they would “burn the place down.” Other sources quoted Newton personally claiming credit after one of the fires. [267]

Coleman and Avery also wrote that the Squad was used as the enforcers when Newton inflicted discipline on out-of-favor Panthers. The journalists stated that “Newton beat Party members, sometimes ordering Squad members to hold their guns on them [the beating victims] when he did.” The authors described “harsh disciplinary actions,” such as beatings with lead pipes and bullwhips. [268]

Newton’s Violent Crime Spree

Left-leaning reporters Kate Coleman and Paul Avery cited “the Alameda County district attorney’s office, police and various witnesses” for their conclusion that on July 30, 1974, Huey Newton began an 18-day “bizarre rampage of intermittent violence.” Allegations against Newton from these incidents included the murder of a prostitute, the beating of another woman, and using the handle of a pistol to inflict a four skull fractures on a tailor who made a business call on Newton’s apartment. [269]

Newton was charged with numerous felonies relating to these allegations, and ultimately with the murder of a 17-year-old prostitute named Kathleen Smith. Newton fled the country shortly after the attacks and before charges were filed, eventually settling in Cuba for nearly three years. [270]

Newton returned from Cuba in 1977 and was prosecuted, but never was convicted of the assault and murder charges. At least two individuals initially considered to be the strongest witnesses against Newton declined to stand by their original statements.

The tailor allegedly pistol-whipped by Newton gave a tape-recorded statement to police shortly after the attack, identifying Newton as the assailant. Sometime afterward, the tailor reached an out-of-court civil settlement of $6,000 with Newton ($27,000 in 2021 dollars). When put on the witness stand to testify against Newton four years after the assault, the tailor told the court he did not recall who had battered him. [271]

In a 1989 essay for a weekly alternative newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area, reporter Ken Kelly stated that he heard Newton confess to killing Kathleen Smith. Before becoming a journalist, and shortly after Newton returned from Cuba, Kelly had assisted Newton with public relations. Kelly reported the confession occurred “a few months” after he began working with Newton, while the two were alone and Newton was drinking heavily and snorting cocaine. [272]

Attempted Murder of Crystal Gray

At a preliminary hearing during the first prosecution of Newton for the murder of Kathleen Smith, fellow prostitute Crystal Gray provided detailed eyewitness testimony identifying Newton as the killer. [273]

On a late evening in October 1977, after Gray was known to be a prosecution witness, a 56-year-old Oakland grandmother named Mary Matthews engaged in (and survived unharmed) a gun battle against three Black Panthers trying to break into her home. One of the three attackers, Louis Johnson, was lying dead outside her door when police arrived, a shotgun lying next to him, accidentally shot in the back of the head by one of his two compatriots who fled the scene. [274]

Matthews also owned a second home immediately behind the one she was living in and was renting it to Crystal Gray. Gray was due in court to testify against Huey Newton the next day. Matthews was the accidental recipient of a botched murder attempt targeting Gray. The next morning the district attorney made a public statement calling the incident a “planned assassination” of his witness and put Crystal Gray under police protection. [275]

Newton denied involvement in the attempt on Gray. Flores Forbes, one of the two attackers who escaped the shootout with Ms. Matthews, suffered a severe gunshot wound to the hand and sought treatment from another local Panther, a paramedic named Nelson Malloy. Malloy determined the injury required surgery. Hoping to conceal the gunshot wound from local police investigating the attack on Matthews, Malloy and two other Panthers helped Forbes flee to Las Vegas and check into a hospital under an assumed name. [276]

Soon afterward, Forbes disappeared, and Malloy was found paralyzed but still alive and buried in a rock pile outside Las Vegas. Questioned afterward by police, Malloy stated he had gotten into a car with the other two Panthers involved in the Forbes flight to Las Vegas, who said they were driving him out of town so he would not face police questioning. Instead, Malloy said the pair stopped in the desert outside of town, shot him repeatedly in the back, and buried him alive (likely assuming he was dead). [277]

Flores Forbes went into hiding after he left hospital, but for three years was missing and assumed to have been murdered for the same reason Malloy was shot and buried alive—a cover-up of the attempt to kill Crystal Gray. When Forbes did resurface years later, he was convicted of the attempted murder of Gray and of the accidental murder of his Panther accomplice Louis Johnson and sent to prison until 1985. [278]Following the string of violence seemingly aimed at preventing her testimony, Crystal Gray became a less-certain witness against Newton. In place of her previously very detailed testimony implicating Newton as the killer of Kathleen Smith, Gray added that she had been impaired by cannabis on the night of the murder and also had poor eyesight. [279]

Two murder trials both led to hung juries. Prosecutors did not attempt a third murder trial against Newton. [280]

According to journalist Hugh Pearson, the quadriplegic Malloy’s dramatic testimony about the Black Panthers’ obvious and inept attempts to kill witnesses led to “a rapid nosedive” in support for the organization. “Coverage of the paralyzed Malloy being returned from Las Vegas to his Winston-Salem hometown under heavy police protection further devastated the party’s image in the public’s eyes,” wrote Pearson. [281]

Pearson wrote that Elaine Brown was “said to be furious at the negative publicity that the botched attempt on Crystal Gray’s life brought on the party,” and resigned from the organization. Brown was then the second in command to Newton and had nominally run the Panthers in his absence while he was in Cuba. (Pearson noted that Brown gave different reasons for her controversial disappearance and departure from the organization, such as disagreements with Newton). [282]

The “avalanche of negative party publicity” from all of these events, according to Pearson, “caused the same public officials who had praised the Panthers” during the Elaine Brown leadership to step away from the organization. [283]

A prominent example was Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, who resigned from the board of the Panther-run school. Wilson was Oakland’s first African American mayor. Pearson wrote the Panthers had been critical to his victory, providing “most of Wilson’s get-out-the-vote workers.” [284]

The Wilson/Panther alliance had also provided benefits for the Panthers, such as Wilson appointing Elaine Brown to an important economic development board. The Shadow of the Panther reports several other Panthers who lost their appointed positions with city and county government in the aftermath of the attempt on Crystal Gray’s life and subsequent violence and scandals. [285]

Describing the fallout and damage from these events, journalists Coleman and Avery said the Panthers “had never looked worse.” [286]

History: The End (1977-1982)

Investigations into financial and other improprieties by Newton personally and Panther-controlled entities marked the last five years of the Black Panther Party. The last official Panther program to cease operations was the Oakland Community Learning Center (the Panther-run school) in 1982. [287] [288]

The Shadow of the Panther reported that an audit of the Educational Opportunities Corporation (the parent of the school) revealed the misuse of a $110,000 federal grant ($450,000 in 2021 dollars) had been used to place members of “the Squad”—Newton’s group of bodyguard/enforcers—on the payroll of a so-called “Youth Delinquency and Prevention Program.” The auditors discovered that other grants to the school were used to pay for apartments for Squad members. [289]

An inside source speaking to reporters Coleman and Avery said the grants were used to “keep the Squad sweet.” [290]

A pair of reporters for the Oakland Tribune revealed that Flores Forbes and other Panthers facing serious felony charges were some of those on the payrolls of grant programs run by the Educational Opportunities Corporation. Following release of the story, the vehicle of one of the Oakland Tribune reporters was firebombed one morning at 4:00 a.m. The same morning a boxcar adjacent to the Tribune’s warehouse was also deliberately set ablaze. [291] [292]

City auditors also discovered it likely that some of the Panthers on the grant-funded payrolls never showed up for the work. The Oakland City Council eventually voted to cancel its contracts with the Panthers. [293]

During the summer of 1978, the IRS placed a $200,000 lien ($833,000 in 2020 dollars) for unpaid taxes against a Panther-owned holding company in New York City. Coleman and Avery wrote that the considerable flow of revenue into the Black Panthers over many years would have left them “financially solid” if it had been managed competently. Instead, according to one “former supporter,” they were “always [expletive deleted]-up with the money.” [294]

The state of California provided $620,000 in grants to the Oakland Community Learning Center (OCLC) for academic years 1980-81 and 1981-82 ($1.7 million in 2021 dollars). These grants were conditional, based on projected enrollment at the Panther schools. The OCLC was required to keep accurate records of enrollment and use of the funds, and reimburse the state if enrollment fell short of projections. [295]

Neither the recordkeeping nor the enrollment figures were kept properly. The Shadow of the Panther reported that school principal Ericka Huggins resigned in 1982 after becoming “fed up” with the situation. Her replacement established that the school had exaggerated its enrollment, owed reimbursement to the state, had “employees” on the payroll who did not actually show up for work, and that he could not account for funds the state claimed to have already paid the school. [296]

The administrator secured an emergency loan from the state to cover immediate payroll while he sorted out the outstanding problems. The loan was intercepted by Newton, who used it for personal needs. Confronted by the administrator, Newton admitted the improprieties. In response, according to The Shadow of the Panther, Newton said: “If you keep fooling around I’m going to end up in jail. So you had better get your black ass out of there before there’s trouble between you and me.” [297]

The administrator contacted the FBI, and Newton was indicted for embezzlement. The improprieties led to the closing of the Panther school in 1982, the last remaining major program of the Black Panther Party. [298]

Relations with Communist Regimes

The Black Panther Party formed several alliances with Communist regimes. When he was released from prison in 1970, Huey Newton declared the “most important” inspirations for the Black Panthers to be Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro, Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong, North Korean communist dictator Kim Il-Sung, Vietnamese communist dictator Ho Chi Minh, and several other “guerillas who are fighting for a socialist world.” [299]

The authors of Black Against Empire wrote that in the summer of 1970 Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Brown, representing the Black Panther Party, were welcomed as “official guests” of the communist regimes in North Vietnam, North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. [300]

Algerian “Embassy”

Many of the international communist connections made by the Black Panther Party were through the Panthers’ so-called “embassy” in Algeria. In June 1970, according to Black Against Empire, the Algerian government had “broken off diplomatic relations with the United States” and gave an embassy building in Algiers to the Black Panther Party as the “only Americans recognized” by Algeria. The book states: “The Algerian government accredited the Black Panthers as one of twelve liberation movements that merited support in overthrowing the governments in their respective countries.” [301]

Eldridge Cleaver was the leader of the Black Panther Party international section in Algiers. He had moved to exile in Algeria in 1969, following his flight to Cuba in late 1968 to avoid being sent back to American prison on a parole violation. [302]

North Korea

A February 2013 report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars states that Eldridge Cleaver made two visits to North Korea in 1969 and 1970. The Wilson Center notes that other American radical-left groups of the late 1960s were “drawn to North Korea,” but that the Black Panthers developed “perhaps the most firm connection” and “produced a steady stream of commentary” favoring the North Korean state and its communist dictator, Kim Il-Sung. [303]

According to the Wilson Center, “North Korea regarded the American radical left as an important partner during this period and believed the BPP [Black Panther Party] could help sway U.S. public opinion in favor of the DPRK [Democratic Republic of North Korea].” [304]

Cleaver praised North Korea was an “earthly paradise” where the people “have no worries about food, clothing, lodging, education, medicine” and “work til hearts content leading a happy life.” He complimented dictator Kim Il-Sung as “one of the outstanding leaders” of the “world revolutionary movement” and the “most relevant strategist in the struggle against U.S. fascism and imperialism in the world today.” [305]

Cleaver also sent his wife and son to North Korea during this period, and his daughter was born there during July 1970. [306]

North Vietnam

While in Algeria during the second half of 1969, Eldridge Cleaver and North Vietnamese diplomats began discussing the possibility of freeing American POWs held by North Vietnam, in exchange for the U.S. government releasing Huey Newton and Bobby Seale from prison. The authors of Black Against Empire wrote that that this plan, which would have required the cooperation of the U.S. government, never materialized. But the Panthers—North Vietnam relationship did result in the communist government giving the Panthers 379 letters from American POWs to be delivered to the families. [307]

Following the August 1970 visit to North Vietnam by Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Brown, the communist government declared a “day of solidarity with the black people of the United States.” While in North Vietnam, Cleaver accepted an invitation to speak on North Vietnamese state radio to American troops stationed in South Vietnam. Cleaver used the address to tell Black American draftees that their government was seeking to “solve two problems with one little move” (i.e.: getting African Americans and Vietnamese communists to kill each other). [308]

People’s Republic of China

In the fall of 1971 Panther leader Huey Newton visited the People’s Republic of China. The Black Against Empire account of the trip stated Newton was “welcomed as an honored guest” by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. The visit included a rally in Tiananmen Square, with the crowd “waving red flags and applauding the Panthers,” and other festivities such as folk dancing and “revolutionary ballet.” The authors of Black Against Empire wrote that these events took place under large red banners stating: “Peoples of the World, Unite to Destroy the American Aggressors and their Lackeys.” [309]

Former Panther Leaders After 1982

Bobby Seale

Bobby Seale became an instructor at Temple University’s Department of Afro-American Studies. [310] As of May 2021, he was still an activist making public appearances at events in California at age 84. [311]

Huey Newton

Huey Newton was murdered in Oakland in 1989 by a drug dealer. The Shadow of the Panther states that Newton was a customer of his murderer and may have also robbed the drug dealer. In 1980, before the dissolution of the Black Panthers, Newton completed a doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz and was awarded a Ph.D. During the last seven years of his life, he was incarcerated at least twice for convictions related to illegal weapons possession and embezzlement. [312]

Eldridge Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver returned to the United States in 1977 and was prosecuted for his role in the 1968 shootout with police in which fellow Panther Bobby Hutton was killed. Initially charged with attempted murder, Cleaver pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge and was sentenced to 1200 hours of community service. [313]

Cleaver underwent numerous political and religious evolutions throughout the remainder of his life, becoming at various times a born-again Christian, a conservative Republican, a member of the Unification Church, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. [314]

He entered a treatment program for cocaine addiction in 1990, having been arrested for possession two years earlier (with charges dropped due to an illegal police search). In a 1994 interview, his former wife, Kathleen Cleaver, said he had returned to the United States from Algeria “a very unhealthy person, unhealthy mentally” and “a profoundly disappointed and ultimately disoriented person” who never recovered. [315]

He died in 1998 at age 62. [316]

David Hilliard

According to Encyclopedia.com, David Hilliard “found it difficult to readjust to public life” after his release from prison in 1974. He had been incarcerated since 1971, following a conviction for his role in the April 1968 shootout that led to the death of Bobby Hutton. Abuse of alcohol and cocaine, and an inability to hold down jobs, continued until 1990, when he entered an Alcoholics Anonymous program. [317]

In 2006 he began teaching a course on the history of the Black Panthers at the University of New Mexico. [318] He gave a lecture on the same topic in November 2010 at Illinois Wesleyan University. [319]

In 2015, writing on behalf of and as the executive director of the Huey P. Newton Foundation, Hilliard publicly criticized “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a PBS documentary about the Panthers’ history. [320]

“The film besmirches the memory and legacy of Huey P. Newton and inaccurately casts Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Eldridge Cleaver as a principal storyteller and an essential member of the BPP,” wrote Hilliard. “The historical record will reveal that Kathleen and her late husband were associated with the BPP for approximately one year and did as much or more to destroy the BPP than the COINTELPRO operations.” [321]

Elaine Brown

In 1980, three years after leaving the Black Panthers, Elaine Brown attended the Southwestern University School of Law, and graduated in 1983. She became active in and founded several organizations advocating changes to prison and criminal justice policy. Since 1995 she has lectured at dozens of major American universities and conferences. [322]

In a 1993 speaking tour following the publication of her autobiography, she described her politics as “communist with a small ‘c.’”[323]

Law Enforcement Controversies

The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America reported that local and federal law enforcement tried to “infiltrate, repress and destroy” the Black Panthers. “These efforts,” according to the Encyclopedia, “were designed to promote violence between the Panthers and other black organizations, to encourage internal dissention within the party, to undermine public support for the party and its leaders, and to provoke local police attacks.” [324]

In the fall of 1969, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said the Panthers were the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Similarly in 1970, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, responding to pressure from President Richard Nixon to act against the organization, declared the Panthers to be “menace to national security.” [325]

The Black Panthers were one of many prominent targets of the FBI’s domestically focused Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the often illegal and unconstitutional surveillance and harassment of politically controversial Americans that was conducted during the Hoover era. Some of the COINTELPRO tactics used against the Panthers, according to The Shadow of the Panther, included infiltration by informants, letter forging, wiretapping, and telephone voice impersonation. The book reports that COINTELPRO made use of at least 64 informants at all Panther chapters nationwide. [326]

Shadow author Hugh Pearson writes that blackmail was sometimes used to coerce Panthers to become informants and alleged that blackmail was how the FBI obtained its first Panther informant. The agents first tried to accuse the man of participation in a Panther bombing and said they would decline to prosecute if he became an informant. When this approach failed because the man laughed and denied any involvement in the bombing, the federal agents allegedly administered a beating, after which the Panther agreed to cooperate. [327]

COINTELPRO

According to journalists Kate Coleman and Paul Avery, the FBI forged “defamatory letters” between Newton and Cleaver during the pair’s ideological dispute that began in 1970. The purpose of this fabricated correspondence was to “play on their mutual paranoia” of each other and exacerbate the ultimately irreparable split between them and their respective factions. [328]

Black Against Empire and The Shadow of the Panther each portrayed the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation as engaging in other examples of unethical and unconstitutional behavior.

Encouraging Outside Violence against Panthers

During the late 1960s in Southern California the Panthers feuded and competed for recruits with the US Organization, another Black nationalist organization. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover encouraged his agents to further aggravate what he said had become “gang warfare” between the two organizations, “with the attendant threats of murder and reprisals.” In a November 1968 memo to field offices, Hoover asked for “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures” that might further harm the Panthers. [329]

The Los Angeles FBI office responded, pitching to Hoover a plan to forge a document, purportedly from US Organization, and get it to the Black Panthers. The fake document would state that US had become aware of a plan by the Panthers to assassinate US Organization leader Ron Karenga, and that US was planning to retaliate against this murder attempt by launching surprise attacks against Panthers in Los Angeles. Selling this idea to Hoover, the Los Angeles FBI noted that it was “hoped this counterintelligence measure” would create a “vendetta” between both organizations. [330]

In January 1969 two local Panther leaders were fatally shot in Los Angeles by US members after an event on the UCLA campus. The deadly violence continued into August 1969 when another Panther was shot dead by US gunmen while selling issues of The Black Panther newspaper at a shopping center in San Diego. [331]

After the August murder, the special agent in charge of the San Diego office sent a memo to Hoover that both celebrated and took credit for the violence: “Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this over-all situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.” [332]

Referencing the San Diego murder, the agent told Hoover “… a new cartoon is being considered in the hopes that it will assist in the continuance of the rift … This cartoon, or series of cartoons, will be similar in nature to those formerly approved by the Bureau and will be forwarded to the Bureau for evaluation and approval immediately upon their completion.” [333]

COINTELPRO had previously produced cartoons ridiculing the Panthers and disturbed the propaganda in such a way that it appeared US Organization had produced it. [334]

Abuse of Mary Kennedy’s Family

Mary Kennedy, according to The Shadow of the Panther, was an example a Panther member who was “law-abiding and sincerely interested in being of value to the Black community” and joined because of “a sincere interest in changing conditions for the better.” Kennedy provided Shadow author Hugh Pearson with remembrances of both her life as a rank-and-file Panther member, and her eyewitness accounts of legally and ethically suspect behavior by Panther leadership. (Soon after becoming involved in the Panthers, Mary became estranged from her husband, who was a participant in violent Panther-related behavior that resulted in a prison sentence.)[335]

The book provides multiple examples of rough treatment of the Kennedy family by the FBI. [336]

The mother of at least six children, Kennedy obtained a part time job with the U.S. Post Office in 1969 and—according to The Shadow of the Panther — “got off welfare.” She lost this job because of “FBI intervention” related to the Bureau’s assistance in a “secret federal grand jury convened in San Francisco in 1969.” [337]

According to Shadow, the FBI rounded up “everyone” known to be a Panther member or even a “friend of the party” for the secret grand jury. FBI agents arrived to issue a subpoena to Kennedy on a day when she was not home, and a baby-sitter was watching her children. Debra, Kennedy’s oldest daughter, answered the door and informed the agents that her mother was not home. [338]

Speaking to them only through a door cracked open and held by a security chain link, Debra also refused to give the agents permission to enter the apartment (intentionally or unintentionally asserting her right against unlawful searches under the 4th Amendment). According to Shadow, the agents became angry and “proceeded to pull Debra’s arm through the door to prevent her from closing it.” [339]

The agents left after the baby-sitter assured them Mary was not home and begged them to go away. According to The Shadow of the Panther, the FBI returned later with more agents who “surrounded the entire building.” Mary had returned home and accepted the subpoena without resistance. [340]

Killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark

Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton and Illinois Panther activist Mark Clark were shot to death during a controversial December 1969 police raid on Hampton’s residence. Four other Panthers were shot in the incident, and one police officer sustained a bullet wound to the leg. [341]

Seven Panthers that survived the raid were arrested, but no proof was found that they had fired weapons. They were never charged. The state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois; an assistant prosecutor; and twelve police officers present during the raid were later indicted for crimes related to their conduct. None were convicted. [342]

In 1983 the families of the deceased and surviving Panthers won a $1.85 million ($5 million in 2021 dollars) civil judgment against the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government. [343]

Special Prosecutions Unit Controversies

A May 1970 federal grand jury report on the raid found that at least 82 shots had been fired by the officers of the Special Prosecutions Unit (SPU), a local law enforcement task force directed by the office of the Cook County state’s attorney. The investigation ruled that only one shot may have been fired by one of the Panthers. These findings significantly contradicted statements made by the state’s attorney. [344]

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, the Cook County state’s attorney told media that the Panthers initiated the shootout with the SPU officers: “The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times.” [345]

Additionally, the state’s attorney provided photos to the Chicago Tribune, which he alleged proved the Panthers had fired at police. These claims were debunked by a New York Times investigation that showed the photos did not represent the locations or even objects claimed by the state’s attorney, with one photo of a supposed bullet hole being instead a nail hole. [346]

Investigating the apartment soon after the shooting, the New York Times reported “Most of the rooms and walls appeared to be free of scars, pockmarks and bullet holes. There were clusters of bullet holes and the gouges of shotgun blasts in the places where the Panthers said the two men had been killed and four others had been wounded.  [. . .] There were no bullet marks in the area of the two doors through which the police said they entered.” [347]

Black Against Empire reported that three doctors were hired by Hampton’s parents to conduct an independent autopsy of his body. The team was led by the former chief pathologist at the Cook County coroner’s office. The medical investigators ruled that Hampton had been hit in the back of the head by three bullets while he was lying down. They did not find gunshot residue on him, which would have indicated he had fired a weapon before his death. [348]

FBI Surveillance Support

In April 1969, the Chicago FBI’s COINTELPRO program began collaborating with the Special Prosecutions Unit. Using its surveillance of the Panthers, including informants and sometimes illegal warrantless wiretaps, the FBI provided intelligence to the SPU. [349]

The FBI’s Chicago office recruited William O’Neal to become a paid informant to provide the FBI with information regarding the Chicago Panthers. At the time the FBI approached O’Neal, he was an inmate at the Cook County jail.  O’Neal successfully infiltrated the Chicago Panthers, becoming the organization’s chief of security. [350]

Several weeks before a team of 14 SPU officers raided Fred Hampton’s home, O’Neal provided the FBI with a detailed map of the residence. This included an inventory of the weapons on the premises, individuals likely to be present, and the location of Hampton’s bed and nightstand, where he was later shot dead. After the raid on Hampton’s home, FBI awarded O’Neal a bonus payment of $300 (nearly $2,300 in 2021 dollars) for giving information of “tremendous value” in connection with the raid. [351]

References

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  2. Bloom, Joshua; and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. University of California Press. 2013. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520293281/black-against-empire ^
  3. Pearson, Hugh. The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Panther-Newton-Price-America/dp/0201483416 ^
  4. Delli Carpini, Michael X. (2000). Black panther party: 1966-1982. In I. Ness & J. Ciment (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America  (pp. 190-197). Armonke, NY: Sharpe Reference. Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=asc_papers ^
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  9. Pearson, Hugh. The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Panther-Newton-Price-America/dp/0201483416 ^
  10. Delli Carpini, Michael X. (2000). Black panther party: 1966-1982. In I. Ness & J. Ciment (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America  (pp. 190-197). Armonke, NY: Sharpe Reference. Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=asc_papers ^
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  76. Morgan, Thad. “The NRA Supported Gun Control When the Black Panthers Had the Weapons.” History.com. March 22, 2018. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/black-panthers-gun-control-nra-support-mulford-act ^
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  163. Lee, William. “In 1969, charismatic Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton was killed in a hail of gunfire. 50 years later, the fight against police brutality continues.” Chicago Tribune. December 3, 2019. Accessed July 9, 2021. https://archive.is/ry5jx#selection-1241.0-1241.149 ^
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